Monday, 30 November 2009

Crank magnetism

Predictable as the sun rising we have a new non-controversy (a.k.a. manufactroversy) involving hacked e-mails from the Climate Research Unit. Denialists invoke carefully selected portions as evidence of a global conspiracy, among scientists, to pull the wool over our eyes regarding Global Warming.
                  (h/t Paryngula)
Aside from the hypocrisy of ignoring identical actions taken by reality refuting groups ("Criticism on the anti-warming side appears to be reserved only for environmentalists and mainstream researchers as their own side gets a free pass every time."),  it is evident this dumping of raw material to the general public is misrepresenting what science is about. In the words of Thoughts from Kansas:
In all honesty, there isn't that much more to be said about the substance of the emails. On their face and in their proper context, they demonstrate that there's no active conspiracy to promote global warming as a plot by Jews liberals to control the world economy. They demonstrate that these scientists are not a monolithic group, but have internal disagreements which they resolve using data. The evidence that the planet is getting hotter is unchanged, and the evidence that the change is mostly due to human activity is equally unchanged. So what's the big deal?
Notable is the response by denialists in other artificial controversies. They cling to this hype as evidence that their particular, and unrelated, anti-science stance is warranted. Prosaicly termed "crank magnetism," this shared mechanism stands for, as Orac reminds us:
... the tendency of cranks not to mind it when they see crankery in others. More specifically, it describes how cranks of one variety (for instance, HIV/AIDS denialists, will be attracted to another form of crankery (for instance, anti-vaccinationism or the 9/11 Truth movement) because ..... cranks and pseudoscientists see themselves as iconoclasts, brave mavericks opposed to orthodoxy, be it scientific, historical, or other disciplines. 
Aside from the elaborate exploration of this concept, yet again, he also introduces its corollary: the "vindication of all kooks." His explanation for this behaviour follows:
So why do denialists of all stripes cling to the "all kooks vindicated" corollary to the principle of crank magnetism. Let me finish by speculating on a possible reason. Above all else, cranks cling to beliefs that go against established science. They do this because they do not recognize bad science, either because they do not understand the scientific method and/or because ideology in the form of politics or religion interferes with their critical thinking. They thus come to view not just the science that refutes their crankery as the enemy, but rather all science. Thus, any black eye against science, be it in the form of leaked e-mails, problems with ghost writing, big pharma chicanery, or whatever, must be evidence that their distrust of science is justified. It becomes in their mind a vindication of their view that science is hopelessly corrupt or rigged against them and that they therefore must be on to something. Sadly for them, being on to something in science requires more than just misconduct, real, exaggerated, or imagined, in an area of science completely unrelated to theirs. It requires real data and experimental evidence of a quantity and quality sufficient to be in at least the same order of magnitude as the evidence supporting the current paradigm. Creationists are virtually guaranteed never to achieve this level of evidence, and neither are HIV/AIDS denialists or anti-vaccine kooks.
Another informative article on the way cranks operate can be found at Science-Based Medicine. It discusses "mathematical cranks" and something akin to "crank magnetism" is described:
Parallels are obvious between mathematical cranks and proponents of alternative medicine.
The latter are tediously incapable of evading logical fallacies in their quest to invalidate medical science. Needless to say, the scientific method is not the best way possible, but it is the best we got. Confronted with our inclination towards gullibility we should adhere to any technique that minimises its influence. Or, am I underestimating the nature and size of the conspiracy?

Update. The Independent highlights some traits common in AIDS denialists.

Update II. In the anti-vaccination camp they have come down with acute stupid. A serious condition which has no known cure. Resistent to rational thought, and scientific evidence, it is as if those infected are actually suffering from several types of delusional disorder.

Update III. Without knowing it, by calling the irrational responses from the anti-vaccination movement a spreading infection of delusional disorder I was not alone, Danielle Ofri in the New England Journal of Medicine notes a similar epidemic involving growing fears of a H1N1 influenza vaccine. (h/t The Gotham Skeptic) Initially people were eager for the vaccine to arrive. Then, after it finally did, they had become leery:
How to explain this dramatic shift in 6 short months? It certainly isn't related to logic or facts, since few new medical data became available during this period. It seems to reflect a sort of psychological contagion of myth and suspicion.
Just as there are patterns of infection, there seem to be patterns of emotional reaction ("emotional epidemiology") associated with new illnesses. When 2009 H1N1 influenza was first detected, it fit a classic pattern that Priscilla Wald recently outlined in her book Contagious1: It was novel and mysterious; it emerged from a teeming third-world city, and it was now making its insidious — and seemingly unstoppable — way toward the "civilized" world.
She concludes:
It is clear that there is a distinct emotional epidemiology and that it bears only a faint connection to the actual disease epidemiology of the virus.
Great minds think alike, he spoke modestly.

Update IV. The Island of Doubt notes that the "climategate virus" has infected The Globe and Mail too.

Update V. Some thoughts on the who and why can be found at Deep Climate.

Update VI. When even the Highpriest of Scepticism joins the denialist-movement being anti-science is dangerously contagious, i.e. a new infectious disease rears its ugly head.

Update VII. Added image.

Update VIII. At The Real MFG commenter Lurkella pointed to the origin of the image, which is here. It is made by Joel Pett for USA Today.

1 comment:

  1. Randi isn't a real skeptic anyway. He's just closed-minded.